8 - The Aryan invasions and the origins of caste society  pp. 141-151

The Aryan invasions and the origins of caste society

By Rosalind O'Hanlon

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Brahman myths and the discovery of low caste identity

Phule depicted Brahmans as the descendants of Aryan invaders, who had conquered the indigenous people of India. The Brahmans had usurped the inhabitants’ rightful power and property, and had imposed their religion as an instrument of social control designed to perpetuate their rule. This formed the central polemical device in Phule's explanation of the sufferings of the lower castes. It was through this argument that he was able to deny the legitimacy of Brahmanic religious authority, to assert the hidden Kshatriya identity of all lower castes, and to reinterpret the most important stories, figures, and symbols in popular Hinduism from a new and radical perspective. In this interpretation of ancient Indian history, it is clear that he had drawn very heavily on the missionary accounts that were described in chapter 3, and in particular on the arguments of John Wilson's work India Three Thousand Years Ago.

Phule described how ‘the Aryan progenitors of the present Brahman race’ came originally from a region beyond the Indus, attracted by the proverbial wealth of India and the fertility of its land. They met with fierce resistance from the original inhabitants whom they subjugated, and traces of this ancient struggle were still to be seen in the terminology used to describe the lower castes in the present day. The term Shudra was popularly used to mean ‘low’ or ‘insignificant’ and to denote the lowest of the four varnas, while the term ‘Mahar’ probably derived from the phrase maha-ari, meaning ‘the great enemy’.